Top 10 Presidential Candidates Who Should Have Won

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Every four years the good citizens of this country drag themselves to the voting booth (well, actually about half of them do, the rest being far too busy to concern themselves with such things as picking the leader of their nation) to pick the candidate they hope will do the least amount of damage to the country over the next 48 months. Usually they are reasonably successful at picking, if not the best man possible, at least the best one available, but every once in a while they find themselves wishing they’d pulled the other lever. Below is my list of those men who, in the hindsight of history, would probably have made a better president than the victor did. Some of these men were sitting presidents who were unseated by a lesser opponent, but most were first time candidates who offered a real alternative but were overlooked for whatever reason.

I’m aware that a list like this is highly subjective and I realize that some of my picks will be controversial—causing great anguish and threats of retribution—but such is the price for doing things like making top ten lists. Undoubtedly, you will be able to point out all sorts of people that should be on this list but are not—or, conversely, why some who are on it should not be—which is to be expected. And, finally, none of my picks should be construed as an indictment of any candidate’s personal character; I’m not trying to trash people here, but merely give the reader a look at what might have been but for the fickleness of fate and the electorate.

 

10. GERALD FORD over JIMMY CARTER, 1976

jimmy carter gerald ford debate

It’s not that Gerald Ford was the greatest president the country had ever seen or that Carter lacked the intelligence and experience to be president, it’s just that Carter was ill-suited to make the really tough decisions the job demanded, while Gerald Ford had already proven that he was capable of making those decisions. How that would have impacted the Iran hostage crises and the economic downturn of the late seventies could only be guessed at, but in retrospect, Jerry Ford couldn’t possibly have done any less inspiring a job than the peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia did. Either way, Ronald Reagan would have ended up the next president.

9. HENRY CLAY over JAMES K. POLK, 1844

Political cartoon predicting Polk's defeat by Clay

Political cartoon predicting Polk’s defeat by Clay

It’s not that Polk wasn’t a capable man, it’s just that Henry Clay was a man with a remarkable résumé. A congressman and senator from Kentucky with over forty years of legislative and executive experience (including a previous run for the presidency in 1832), Clay had served as Speaker of the House and Secretary of State before running against Polk (and losing in a squeaker). An abolitionists who did his best to limit the spread of slavery and a colleague of Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun (plus a man greatly admired by Abraham Lincoln), in 1957, a Senate committee chaired by John F. Kennedy named Clay as one of the five greatest senators in U.S. history. Polk, in comparison, while no slacker, had less experience and could have used a bit more polishing—even though he did okay.

8. GEORGE BUSH over BILL CLINTON, 1992

Bill Clinton George Bush Debate

Okay, I know Bill Clinton oversaw one of the great economic boom times in recent history (thanks largely to acquiescing to the GOP controlled congress) but I submit that old George got shafted out of a well-deserved second term. After all, here was a man with a résumé as thick as a phone book who had overseen the largely peaceful collapse of Communism in Europe and successfully prosecuted two wars in two years (Panama and the Persian Gulf), only to lose to a draft evader and two-term Arkansas governor because of a minor recession that occurred late in his term, the incoherent promises of third party candidate Ross Perot, and the oratorical skills of slick Willy. Hardly seemed fair but whatcha gonna do?

7. RICHARD NIXON over JOHN F. KENNEDY, 1960


This is easily my most controversial pick, especially in light of the Kennedy mystique that developed in the aftermath of the man’s assassination. I don’t make this selection, however, because I believe Kennedy was a bad president. My position is that in light of the Cold War tensions that were going on in 1960 and the situation in Cuba, Richard Nixon was probably in a better position to confront the Soviets and resolve the Cuban situation than the neophyte Massachusetts senator was, as Kennedy proved by approving the Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961 and then failing to back it once it began. Nixon, in contrast, was in on the planning for the Cuban invasion from the beginning and would undoubtedly have given the Cuban nationalists the air support they needed to oust Castro, thus removing a fifty year long thorn in our side and foregoing the ensuing Cuban missile crises of October, 1962. How Nixon would have dealt with Vietnam in its infancy, civil rights, and the space program remains a great unknown of course, but it definitely would have been an interesting time that might well have transformed the sixties into something more closely resembling…well, the fifties.

6. HORACE GREELEY over ULYSSES S. GRANT, 1872

Horace Greeley Ulysses Grant Cartoon

While the Civil War General was still wildly popular and Grant was a man of personal integrity, his first four scandal-ridden years in the White House demonstrated that he was in way over his head as president. None-the-less, the Democrats couldn’t seem to find anyone who thought they could unseat him, so they nominated none other than newspaper man and writer Horace Greeley as token opposition. However, Greeley was no slacker, but a genuine reformer and intellectual who probably would have shaken things up. Whether for better or worse is anyone’s guess, but it would have been interesting to see what he would have done had he been given the chance. Unfortunately, he died just a few weeks after losing the election to Grant, but it could be argued that even a dead Horace Greeley would probably have been an improvement over a live U.S. Grant.

 

5. HORATIO SEYMOUR over ULYSSES S. GRANT, 1868

Horatio Seymour Presidential election poster



There’s no denying that Grant was a superb military commander. The problem is that superb military commanders often do not make for good presidents, as Grant’s corruption-plagued and largely inept eight years in the White House later proved. Seymour, on the other hand, had oodles of political experience, including two tumultuous stints as Governor of New York. Even better, he never sought the nomination for president and was essentially drafted by his party to run, demonstrating that unlike most men who seek the presidency, ambition was not one of his short-comings. Would he have been a great president? Probably not, but considering how poor Grant fared, he couldn’t help but to have been better.

 

4. SAMUEL TILDEN over RUTHERFORD B. HAYES, 1876

Rutherford Hayes Samuel Tilden Presidential Election

Actually, Tilden won this election but lost the electoral college vote count through some partisan shenanigans, but that’s another story. In any case, this was the man who took on the corrupt Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall boys in New York and won. A genuine reformer, it is likely that he would have done considerably better than the scandal ridden Hayes had the will of the people been upheld. Unfortunately, like Greeley four years earlier, he also went into failing health after the election, so we don’t even know if he would have lived long enough to do much had he persevered, though all the tea leaves read positive.

3. JAMES COX over WARREN G. HARDING, 1920

1920 election cox harding

After the eight years of turmoil created by the Wilson administration, the country was ready for a “return to normalcy” and in doing so sent one of the most corrupt and incompetent men ever to be president to Washington while repudiating the one man who really might have done some great things had he been elected. Clearly, the former newspaper reporter, Ohioan congressman and two term governor would have been a huge improvement over the womanizing and inept Harding, and he had a pretty decent vice-president named Franklin Delano Roosevelt to boot. (Side note: Imagine that had Cox won and if FDR had succeeded him in 1928, only to get hammered by the Stock Market Crash in 1929 and the resultant depression, whether he would have lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover in 1932? Weird to think about, huh?)

2. WINFIELD SCOTT over FRANKLIN PIERCE, 1852

Scott Pierce Presidential election race

This is kind of a tough call for neither man was especially qualified to be president, but Pierce proved to be such a bad one—despite being, by most accounts, a fairly nice guy in general—that it probably would have been reasonable to have let ol’ Winfield take a shot at it. At least Scott wasn’t pro-slavery and a secessionist (Pierce being one of the few ex-presidents to support the confederacy), nor was he as likely to have made the catastrophic decisions—such as repealing the Missouri Compromise and reopening the question of the expansion of slavery in the West that made succession growingly unavoidable—that poor Franklin did. Winfield was no saint himself (he was in charge of removing the Cherokees from their homes in the southeast United States, though he was acting under orders from then President Andrew Jackson) but he was an able general, having successfully led the U.S. Army against Santa Ana in Mexico, and a man with some impressive leadership skills. Would he have been able to prevent the Civil War from occurring had he been president? Hard to tell but he doubtlessly would have at least made some effort to do so, which is more than can be said for Pierce.

1. THEODORE ROOSEVELT over WOODROW WILSON, 1912

Charles Lewis Bartholomew, ca. 1912. Untitled. This election marked the only time that graduates of Harvard (Teddy Roosevelt, top), Princeton (Woodrow Wilson 1879), and Yale (President William Howard Taft) competed in a presidential election campaign.

Charles Lewis Bartholomew, ca. 1912. Untitled. This election marked the only time that graduates of Harvard (Teddy Roosevelt, top), Princeton (Woodrow Wilson 1879), and Yale (President William Howard Taft) competed in a presidential election campaign. Courtesy Princeton University Archives

It would have been interesting to see how the twentieth century would have turned out had the hawkish TR been given his parties’ nomination and won a third non-consecutive term as president in 1912. It’s hard to imagine him standing idly by for two years while war raged in Europe as Wilson did without throwing America’s weight in against the Kaiser, probably ending the conflict a couple of years early and saving the world from having to fight Germany again twenty years later. Whether he would have come up something like Wilson’s League of Nations remains to be seen (Teddy more likely would have pursued an isolationist policy) but regardless, it would have made for quite a different century, one would think.

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BONUS TRIVIA FACT: How many presidents have served in the armed forces? Actually, over half—28 out of 43. Of them, twelve rose to the rank of General, seven fought in the Civil War, and eight fought in World War Two. Most were Army men, with six Navy men (JFK being the first and George H.W. Bush the last) and one (George W. Bush) having served in the Air Force (Texas Air National Guard, to be precise).

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Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.


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121 Comments

  1. Interesting list. I was honestly surprised not to see Andrew Jackson (1824), Stephen Douglas (1860), Charles Evans Hughes (1916) or Thomas Dewey (1948) crack the list (and yes, Al Gore in 2000 also).

    The "right-wing bias" claims are incredibly specious. In the seven Democrat vs. Republican elections featured in this list of ten elections, there were four hypothetical Democratic victories to three for Republicans. For starters, the Republican "victories" mentioned were by-and-large legitimized by the "single" thing that lost each of those elections. (Bush lost an election he should have cruised through mostly because of the "read my lips" crow Clinton made him eat in ads all autumn. Kennedy won through well-documented vote fraud and Nixon's five-o-clock shadow on the televised debates. Ford would almost certainly have soundly beaten Carter had he not pardoned Nixon.) Grant was enormously popular. Wilson (and by extension his party) enormously UNpopular. I expected Tilden over Hayes to be #1 on this list. Gore over Bush should certainly have made the top five (though Bush over Clinton was a stronger call).

    It would be very interesting to me to see a list like this that included primary opponents. Very often, in the primaries or the nominating conventions, the leading candidate (or candidates) were passed over for compromise choices who went on to win or lose in the general. Parties often failed to nominate their perfunctory leaders when the opportunity arose because of regional or ideological divisions within the party. Had the Deep South been willing to compromise in 1860, Stephen Douglas almost certainly would have defeated Lincoln for the grand prize. The Whigs' strategy of regional candidates in 1836 didn't pay off, but why Harrison was the candidate for years later (when he won) rather than Clay is unfathomable to me. James Blaine was the GOP leader for two decades but only gained the nomination once. Robert Taft for nearly as long, never gained the party's nod. FDR nudged out Al Smith for control of the party (and it's nomination) in '32. By "rights," Hillary should have been her party's nominee in '08. The list goes on.

    One of the things anyone reading this list should be able to agree on is how much fun history's "what ifs" can be.

    • You gotta be kidding! I love how you expound on the details of long-ago politics but ignore the historical fact that the Democratic and republican party “changed places” in the early decades of the 20th century. The Dems used to be the party that favored conservative causes, and the republican was the one championing progressive causes (to simplify).

      This list was horribly tilted to the right, just like elections & the Overton Window has been in America for the last few decades. And look at the present situation in America. Horrible. That is what you get when you turn to the right wing.

  2. I can't help but laugh my head off at all these comments. People need to calm down and respect each other's opinions. The comment section is a place for you to say what you think should have been included or left off the list, not to get in stupid arguments that aren't going to change anyone's political views on anything.

    Remember, arguing on the Internet it like the special olympics. Even if you win, you're still "special."

  3. Wait, not only is this the most right winged list i have ever read about anything, ever. Where the hell is Gore V Bush? i mean not only is that obvious, its probably the most controversial due to the Florida incident and when fox news was like "Gore has won" then ten minuets later was like. "Bush has won."

    Seriously Nixon over Kennedy? what are you like some sort of gigantic right winged super robot built in some sort of government lab? You really think Nixon was a good president?

  4. I went into this list ready to keep an open mind and consider the points given, but there's little doubt in my mind that it's biased (this time towards the conservatives). Clinton is given no credit for his decidedly capable economic handling (the first arguements made against him should be geared toward his foreign policies), while the contry's justified discontent with Bush's raising taxes after promising not to isn't mentioned (though that was more the backlash from Reagan's era in which the government was forced to put money into the stock market to prevent another depression). Meanwhile, Bush vs. Gore isn't even on the list, even though the era that that started ended with three wars, a huge national dept, and a recession (not to mention Bush didn't get the popular vote in the first place).

    In fact, the only election in which the shift to the conservative is called a bad choice is when one of the undeniably worst presidents of all time, Harding, was elected. And even then, the list states that it was the man, not the policies, that failed, suggesting that Roosevelt could have been just as easily blamed for the depression, when the "laissez-faire" policies that started with Harding and continued with his two successors are almost always cited as a big part of what allowed the depression in the first place.

  5. God, what a horrible list. And what about the “bonus trivia” at the bottom?

    “one (George W. Bush) having served in the Air Force (Texas Air National Guard, to be precise).”

    “To be precise” the Air National Guard is not the Air Force.

    If this list leaned any more right my laptop would topple over.

  6. Grant was “in over his head as President” – true enough. But then you say a friggin’ newspaper publisher who’d never held public office was more qualified?

  7. Im glad the gore VS bush isnt on here as that would be one of the worst picks ever. I agree with just about all these although i think mccain shouldve beat barack. Yeah im right wing so? Less goverment the damn better

  8. No Barry Goldwater REALLY? WOOOOOOOOOOOW Read up on him, I would probably put Goldwater 3rd maybe even second

  9. Eyeless Dog Pawless Dog Loveless Dog on

    wow… just wow…

    “It’s hard to imagine him standing idly by for two years while war raged in Europe as Wilson did without throwing America’s weight in against the Kaiser, probably ending the conflict a couple of years early and saving the world from having to fight Germany again twenty years later.”

    Imperialism at its very best

    You run this site TopTenzMaster?
    I can really see the kind of human being you must be
    sad

  10. So basically you’re saying that Republicans should always win, and it’s bad whenever they don’t. Consider me unimpressed.

  11. If this list had picked Democrats over Republicans, the same people jeering and moaning would be sucking up the bandwidth yelling about how awesome the list was. There are no more butthurt people on this earth than liberals who have their worldview challenged. You leftists have about a million other sites to go to that will affirm your corrosive political views, so why not take your awesome pageviews there and hang with the rest of the hivemind thinkers?

  12. Thanks for posting this list, I know it is old but I wanted to comment. There is always a few “what abouts” but the
    limit is 10 so go figure. I found it very thought provoking. Every election brings about discussing what if …
    The key question for the U.S. and the world really is “what if Obama had won again in 2012”.

  13. The great joke here is that everyone thinks he chose Republicans. Guess what? James Cox, Samuel Tilden, Horatio Seymour, and Horace Greeley are all Democrats.

  14. ” How Nixon would have dealt with Vietnam in its infancy, civil rights, and the space program remains a great unknown of course, but it definitely would have been an interesting time that might well have transformed the sixties into something more closely resembling…well, the fifties”

    And in some bizarre sociopath’s twisted nightmare this is supposed to be a good thing? WTF?!

  15. Thank you for posting this list! As someone mentioned earlier, these sorts of things bring to mind the “what ifs” of history; always fun for those of us who teach it.

    Sadly, the majority of the comments are rants from people – as Dragonaut aptly stated – “who have their worldview challenged.” I didn’t see any of these malcontents take TopTenzMaster up on his offer of crafting an alternative list. The irony is that these tantrums are in protest of a relatively centrist list. I shudder to think of the potential seizures taking place at keyboards around the world if this list had been half as partisan as its critics suppose it to be.

    Inversely, I truly appreciate the legitimate attempts by more thoughtful individuals to address the content of the article in a substantive way and advance the dialogue in a more constructive manner.

    Reading through the author’s list, I think it is important to remember that Mr. Danelek did not derive a list of elections which might easily have gone the other way (although to be sure some that is certainly an attribute of some of his selections). Rather, as stated above, it is a list of electoral losers who “would probably have made a better president than the victor did.” My thoughts on the top ten, therefore, are in light of that consideration.

    10. Ford over Carter. In the nearly forty years since he took the oath of office, no one has ever asserted that Gerald Ford was a great president. However, many of us who lived through the Carter years consider Peanut Jimmy the biggest failure in the White House of our lifetimes. Extending the Ford administration through January 20, 1981 may not have greatly impacted the economy or the diminishment of the executive branch which occurred in the mid-to-late 1970’s, but we would have more aggressively opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (rather than ineffectually boycotting the 1980 Olympics), supported the Shah of Iran (possibly thwarting the 1979 Iranian Revolution), and avoided malaise of the Carter years.

    9. Clay over Polk. While Henry Clay was a great American and it is astonishing that he was never elected to the presidency between 1824-1848, James K. Polk (also a former Speaker of the House) did not lack experience. Tyler had all but completed the annexation of Texas (which Clay opposed in the election), so that likely would not have changed, but the Mexican War and our subsequent acquisition of the Southwest, California, Oregon, etc. may have turned out quite differently. Of course, without new territory to quibble over, the Missouri Compromise may well have been upheld decades longer, possibly avoiding the Civil War. Personally, I think Polk was a good president and I don’t see a Clay administration accomplishing more than Polk did.

    8. Bush over Clinton. A no-brainer for a list like this. Clinton’s first-term successes (NAFTA, for example) were Bush initiatives. Contrary to what at least one commenter stated, Bush did not continue the Reagan economic policies; he caved to the Democrat-controlled Congress and raised taxes. The biggest difference between what actually happened and a second Bush term, however, is clearly that the Republican Revolution of 1994 would not have occured under a Republican administration. That and the near-certainty that the governor of Arkansas would be pushed aside by more prominent contenders for the 1996 Democratic nomination (Mario Cuomo most likely).

    7. Nixon over Kennedy. Intriguing possibility given that Nixon likely did “win” the 1960 election. (Al Gore should have taken a page from Nixon’s playbook rather than disgrace himself and divide the nation as he did in 2000). Nixon would certainly have (at least) prevented the Cuban missile buildup in the first place or (at best) assisted Cuban liberators in overthrowing Castro. The space race would not have been a national priority, but Nixon likely would have worked towards (if not prioritized) improving the federal response towards race relations. We’d certainly have been spared the grotesquely inaccurate Camelot mythos which so pervades the Baby Boom generation.

    6. Greeley over Grant. President Grant was enormously popular and Greeley died before the votes could even be counted so there is no “what if” in the realm of possibility where a Greeley win would result in a Greeley presidency. (In fact, it may have precipitated a constitutional crisis.) Far more interesting, and within the realm of possibility, would be the election of the man whom Greeley defeated for the Liberal Republican nomination, Charles Francis Adams (son and grandson of the presidents). Adams had been a U.S. Congressman, was instrumental as ambassador to Great Britain in keeping that country from recognizing the Confederacy during the Civil War, and had turned down the presidency of Harvard just a few years earlier. An Adams presidency would have seen an end to Reconstruction and civil service reform a few years earlier than either actually occurred.

    5. Seymour over Grant. It’s easy to pick on Grant, but in many respects he was far from a failure as president. The corruption for which his administration has been roundly condemned was no more than that of more than a few of his successors, including the current administration. (Credit Mobilier, for example, took place during prior administrations.) Seymour, though, had a wealth of executive experience, a record of defending the constitution and seeking conciliation. He had turned down numerous offers for high office which would appeal to the vanity or ambition of others. A Seymour presidency may well have done more to erase the ill will between North and South than any other individual’s election in the aftermath of the war. Missed opportunity here.

    4. Tilden over Hayes. A Tilden presidency may have seen a wonderful reformation of federal corruption and, possibly, a better approach to the Indian problem out West. Tilden’s party, however, agreed to Hayes’ election in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from Southern soil which is ironic as a Tilden presidency could almost certainly have achieved the same result. In many ways, the closest presidential election in history is being given more credit here (IMHO) for its proximity (i.e. narrow outcome) than for the difference it would have made (i.e. better outcome) had the results differed. Personally, I think a Seymour win over Grant would have made a far more profound difference than Tilden over Hayes.

    3. Cox over Harding. Harding was an able man whose presidency was very successful (and was quite popular to boot.) Condemned for both personal and political scandals overblown in popular memory since his death, in perspective Harding is more par-for-the-course than uniquely condemned by his (and his administration’s) indiscretions. Harding truly did return the country to “normalcy”, including a post-war boom thanks to his policies. Harding was far from one of the worst presidents. Cox was an outspoken advocate of Wilsonianism and, consequently, was soundly rejected by the electorate in 1920, even by his own home state. (Cox won only 11 of a possible 48 states, all of which were Confederate or border states in the Civil War.)

    2. Scott over Pierce. Insightful selection here. Personally I believe a Scott presidency would be what we could have expected the previous four years had Zachary Taylor lived to complete his term. The Kansas-Nebraska Act certainly would never have become law had Scott’s signature been required. Scott would have also taken measures in advance (as did Andrew Jackson twenty years earlier) to squelch the possibility of secession. A Whig victory in 1852, incidentally, may also have prevented the formation of the Republican Party and would have maintained the balance of a two-party system in which neither party was strictly limited to the interests of a single geographic region of the country.

    1. TR over Wilson. It’s a shame that the TR and Taft forces could not reconcile after the nomination – I blame TR’s unwillingness to withdraw – because either candidate would have won in a two-party race against Wilson. Not altogether sure about WWI and its aftermath being terribly different (other than prosecuted more competently and honestly), but I’m certain TR would have made a better president than Wilson.

    Agreed about several of the misses on this list, especially 1964, 1948, 1916 and 1860. I would also add a few more which haven’t been mentioned:

    1824 – William Crawford over John Q. Adams. True, Crawford was in ill health, but he did recover and he was the real torchbearer of the Jeffersonian legacy. Besides, the president in those days wasn’t the 24/7 national nanny supervising a bureaucratic behemoth like today. Think Jackson administration minus the tyranny, demagoguery and no Trail of Tears.

    1888 – Grover Cleveland over Benjamin Harrison. Just to be clear, in this round, Harrison was the challenger and Cleveland the incumbent. The Harrison presidency saw the passage of legislation which Cleveland would have wisely vetoed and a more militant approach to foreign policy. Harrison, for all his merits, was little more than an inoffensive party lackey who acted as a rubber stamp to more than a few bad ideas. Cleveland had enough guts – I’m speaking figuratively here – to oppose his own base when principle called for it.

    2008 – John McCain over Barack Obama. It’s not that McCain would have made a great president so much as Obama has made a poor one. Tougher stance against Islamic terrorism, greater respect from our allies and more feared by our enemies, more class in the White House (rather than playing the blame game 24/7), fewer outright assaults on the Constitution, and certainly a less cumbersome approach to the private sector, permitting the economy some much needed breathing room. Oh yeah…a president who actually has a record of bipartisanship rather than whiny finger-pointing and petulant name-calling. Perhaps best of all: no Obamacare driving up costs and driving out physicians from the health care field.